There’s plenty of action in this coastal Florida town to keep you entertained -- and not just on the playing field. Pack your appetite as we take you on a culinary tour of this often-overlooked dining destination. . Photographs by Sean McCormick.
It’s Friday night in Tampa, Florida. A balmy breeze blows along the Hillsborough River, where the gleaming minarets of the University of Tampa reflect in the ripples that snake softly through the city and west into the bay. Here, near the water, the evening is peaceful.
But downtown, the city is just waking up. At Curtis Hixon Park, a stretch of green along the banks of the Hillsborough, the Florida Orchestra is wrapping up an alfresco concert. Actors on the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center’s five stages are taking curtain calls, and film lovers a few blocks away are enjoying the final screening of the night at the historic Tampa Theatre. And at the St. Pete Times Forum, on the edge of the city, hockey fans are streaming out of the arena after a Tampa Bay Lightning win. The streets are alive with people, laughter, and music.
Downtown Tampa has not always been like this. For decades, this area was a ghost town after dark, ditched for the burbs at sunset by the lawyers and bankers who worked in the city’s towers. But in recent years, downtown Tampa has come back in a big way. In late 2007, Skypoint, the area’s first major residential project in a generation, laid out the welcome mat for 32 stories of condo buyers and helped breathe new life into the surrounding streets. Another tower is on the way, while additional loft projects and condominium buildings have already added to the skyline appeal.
This boom has spearheaded a shift in the local culinary scene as well, as downtown cuisine has finally caught up with the rest of the city’s. Now, no matter where you travel in Tampa, a satisfying meal is right around the corner. The cultural influences that have infused the city’s history books and family trees are well represented, to be sure. But Tampa is also a foodie’s paradise of world-class steak houses, swank wine bars, trendy bistros, and corner cafés. It even boasts two Ethiopian restaurants -- proof, for anyone who was doubtful, of the city’s international appeal.
Tampa will get the chance to show off its hospitable side when it hosts Super Bowl XLIII next month. But whether you’re headed here for the big game or for a little getaway, we’ll tell you how to treat your taste buds to the best the city has to offer.
We start off our culinary adventure in the revitalized city center. Fly Bar and Restaurant opened two years ago and was one of the first restaurants to hit it big downtown. Guests here enjoy seasonal shared plates of global cuisine -- the Kobe-beef sliders, pan-roasted black grouper, and Panko-crusted goat cheese are not to be missed -- along with an impressive wine list and signature cocktails. The spacious restaurant’s industrial-chic setting is complete with exposed ducts and handcrafted wrought-iron bar stools. Big Easy– inspired artwork hangs bright and high on the exposed brick walls, while a jazz band grooves on the corner stage. Diners looking to take advantage of Tampa’s pleasant year-round temperatures can linger at the restaurant’s street-side tables or on the rooftop deck.
Nestled in the curves of Tampa’s lighthouse-shaped Rivergate Tower, Malio’s Prime Steakhouse joined the urban pioneer movement in 2007. As it was a longtime favorite in its original South Tampa location, Malio’s brought much of its loyal clientele with it when it moved downtown; from lunch to late night, its regulars mix with a crowd of young professionals thrilled to have another hot spot for spirits and stylish dining. Guests can dine inside in private booths or enjoy the riverside ambience on the patio. Don’t leave without ordering the lobster bisque, New York strip, and shrimp fra diablo.
Taps Wine & Beer Merchants set up shop last spring on the ground floor of Skypoint, providing tangible proof of the “Retail follows rooftops” maxim. The eatery’s plush couches and sidewalk tables were an immediate draw for the upstairs neighbors, as was the vast selection of adult beverages. Stainless-steel serve-yourself taps tucked into the walls dispense more than 100 kinds of wine, while bartenders pour more than 250 varieties of beer. The lounge has become a favorite for lunch and dinner -- not just for Skypoint residents but for office dwellers from the surrounding streets as well. Try the curried salmon tartare, prosciutto di parma sandwich, and smokey guacamole.
Located just five minutes from downtown, the historic neighborhood of Hyde Park has attracted families for years with its stately mansions and brick-paved streets. The area has earned a reputation for dining and nightlife over the past decade. South Howard Avenue, also known as Restaurant Row and SoHo, is bustling nearly every night of the week; it has more eateries per square foot than any other quarter of the city. Looking for Italian? SoHo has Bella Trattoria. Middle Eastern? Try Soho Oasis Cafe. Tex-Mex and tequila? The Lime. And that’s just the beginning.
The granddaddy of Hyde Park -- indeed, of Tampa dining -- is inarguably Bern’s Steak House, enticing and world-famous not just for its culinary excellence but also for its elegant ambience. Work your way from the bottom of the restaurant to the top, beginning with a tour of the 100,000-bottle wine cellar and ending with a trip to the Harry Waugh Dessert Room, where exquisite creations from Bern’s chefs redefine decadence. In between, enjoy French onion soup au gratin, chateaubriand, or yellowtail snapper à la plancha in the main dining room. Though Bern’s is a superb destination for a special occasion (see the caviar menu), diners looking for a more casual evening can order a steak sandwich at the bar and enjoy the camaraderie of the coterie of locals there.
Poolside tables and live music have made Ceviche Tapas Bar and Restaurant a SoHo late-night favorite. But the charming bungalow setting, inspired by the tapas bars of Spain, is appealing anytime. Pitchers of sangria are the ideal match for the 100-plus menu items, which range from the house favorite ceviche (tangy, fresh, and served in a martini glass) to tres leches, the signature dessert (made of meringue cake). Regulars also can’t resist the mejillones ahumados, cazuela de Sevilla, and solomillo a la parilla.
Bowls, rolls, and sushi meet Italian-influenced California cuisine at Ciccio &; Tony’s and the adjoining restaurant, Water, which formerly were two separate eateries but now are fused together as one. The joint space is sleek and stylish, with cozy booths inside and patio dining around a charming fountain outside. Lemongrass stir-fry, seafood wakame salad, and the dynamite crab roll are favorites at this two-in-one dining spot.
For diners who have a taste for tradition, Tampa offers plenty of places to indulge in the authentic flavors of its Cuban and Spanish heritages. La Teresita is one of the finest restaurants, legendary for its delicious Cuban food not only in its historic West Tampa neighborhood (where the main street is dubbed Boliche Boulevard after a popular Cuban dish) but all over the city. Grab a stool at the casual counter, or snag a table in the main dining room. Tampa politicos and power brokers gather for lunch at Valencia Garden, a renowned restaurant on the edge of downtown. Make no mistake: The Cuban cuisine here is delicious, but it’s the schmoozing that really adds spice to this landmark.
And no gastronomic tour of Tampa is complete without a pilgrimage to Ybor City, Tampa’s historic Latin Quarter. The Silver Ring Café is the gem of the district and boasts the best Cuban sandwich in town. And Columbia Restaurant -- a local favorite since 1905, when it opened as a corner café to serve cigar-factory workers -- boasts flamenco dancing and superb Spanish and Cuban dining in a beautiful setting.
From old-world tradition to the new classics, local essences to international flavors, up-tempo dinner and dancing to downtown cool and cocktails, Tampa has it all. So don’t hit the road as soon as you’ve had your fill of football. The fun here continues even after the lights at Raymond James Stadium go dark.
big lights, bright city